Archive for September, 2013

[50/50] New Fall Schedule for JPTV

Monday, September 30th, 2013

cbs_logoI watched too much television growing up. My dad always warned us that if we didn’t stop, we’d turn into one giant eye — like the CBS logo. And he was right. TV is a drug, a powerful narcotic, and I was an addict. I wasted many many hours on really stupid shows, hours that I wish I had back now to waste on something important.

That said, there was one thing I loved about television, and that was the strange modern custom American networks developed around the launch of the fall season. The TV Guide preview, the annual handicapping of new shows, the ritual sacrifice of the first cancellation. Even if I didn’t watch all the shows (and you couldn’t back then), I loved looking at the programming grid.

Head over to wikipedia and check out the grids for every TV season back to 1946: it is a fascinating time capsule, especially when it comes to shows, concepts and entire networks you’ve probably never heard of (Rhumba dancing in prime time! Something called the DuMont Network!)

It wasn’t just me — there were actually several different board games in the ’60s and early ’70s where players would compete against each other in creating successful programming lineups for fictional networks.

While I generally agree with Marshall McLuhan’s famous assessment of TV, there are a few shows I could watch again (and again in summer repeats) that I have fond memories of, or are just truly great on a literary, cultural or entertaining level. So with that in mind, I give you the perfect Fall Schedule for JPTV.

TV grid

[click on grid to enbiggen]

[50/50] intermission

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Crowded House is back in rotation, after I found their CD while clearing out our abandoned volvo. I always liked Neil Finn’s second band, especially “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” their first moody hit that adeptly encapsulates my first few years after college. (I think it’s the line “Now I’m towing my car/there’s a hole in the roof” that cements it.) Of course it’s “Hole in the River,” a song I’d forgotten about, that has come home for me this week.

[50/50] Song #26: “Reach Out”

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Song #26: “Reach Out” — Cheap Trick (1981)

I ran one marathon in my life. It is one of the few things I’ve ever finished (4:12 in case you were wondering). While I was training, I looped a tape of Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” and played it over and over. The day of the race, this played in my head for all 26 miles — see? OCD is good for something.

“Reach Out” appeared on the soundtrack album for the “Heavy Metal” movie and was released as a single, but has the distinction of not being on any of Cheap Trick’s albums. This is unfortunate, as it — along with the b-side tune “I Must Be Dreamin‘” — were two of the best things the band ever released. (It is doubly unfortunate because the songs were pretty much wasted in the movie.) HEVYMETL-CTIT-3Of course, maybe it’s appropriate it was a single. Except for their best-selling smash “Live at Budokan,” Cheap Trick wasn’t exactly known as an album band — and even the live album was them playing their singles, which then became hits. As tenacious as the group has been (hell, they’re playing Durham next week as part of their 40th anniversary tour), Cheap Trick was always hit or miss: their songs either rocked or sucked. (Even they hate ‘The Flame’).

* * *

It’s also appropriate that this song marks the half-way point of the 50/50 countdown. Writing this list of favorites is a marathon of another sort, and one that’s taken more time than I expected. Given recent events, and more important things in the persistent now that require my attention, I’m unsure I’ll be able to finish this stroll through the past. I might finished the race, but it will have to be with shorter blurbs and faster research. Stay tuned.

[50/50] Computer Game #11: “Myst”

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Computer Game #11: “Myst” (1993)

MystCoverOne of Steve Jobs biggest mistakes was downplaying games on the Macintosh. He and Apple wanted the Mac to be a “serious” machine, and because games were for kids, they poo-pooed add-ons like joysticks, or aggressive support for game programmers. Mac’s superior graphics were supposed to be for important things like art & business, not silly games.

Of course games, as it turned out, would become one of THE biggest businesses, and the driving force for PC hardware and software development. That was driven home when Myst — originally a Mac-only release — became the biggest selling computer game of its time. CD-ROMs had been available for computers for years, but high prices and slow speeds made them unappealing to consumers; “Myst” actually helped drive sales of CD readers and became the ‘killer app’ the industry had been looking for.

On top of that, it truly was a new genre of game — the interactive puzzle mystery. It’s ambiance and logistical challenges could pull you in for hours, as you are given a strange book that can transport you to any time or age — but only if you first solve the mystery of the abandoned island you find yourself on. There are no missions, no levels, no blowing anything up: exploring the island and figuring out how everything works (and what happened to the people there) was the whole game.

Myst is so popular it outlived the CD-ROM (and the compact disc!) and is now available for smart phones and tablets. There are even animated 3-D updates of the original, but part of the charm is the (now) simple yet beautifully rendered graphics. And no matter which version or platform you choose, be sure to wear headphones while playing — the moody sounds and music that surround you are key to getting lost in this imaginary realm.

“Myst” really is all that, and 20 years after its release, it is still an almost mystical experience worth pursuing.

The Value of Suffering

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

In the wake of my father’s death, this essay on suffering in yesterday’s Times is so appropos.

My neighbors [in Japan] aren’t formal philosophers, but much in the texture of the lives they’re used to — the national worship of things falling away in autumn, the blaze of cherry blossoms followed by their very quick departure, the Issa-like poems on which they’re schooled — speaks for an old culture’s training in saying goodbye to things and putting delight and beauty within a frame. Death undoes us less, sometimes, than the hope that it will never come.

Go, read the whole thing here:


[50/50] In the pipeline, 5 by 5

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Please don’t think me callous if my countdown is still posting: I always tried to work a week ahead on these, and they’re set to load automatically on certain dates. Decided yesterday it was easier to let ’em run than go in and change the settings.

[50/50] Album #20: “Last Splash”

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

Album #20: “Last Splash” — The Breeders (1993)

220px-TheBreedersLastSplash(I’m jumping ahead here because, if all goes according to plan, I will be listening to the Breeders play their album “Last Splash” in its entirety at Hopscotch tonight.) The love child of the Pixies and Throwing Muses, the Breeders put out several albums of scrungey idiosyncratic indie rock in 1990s. Thanks to the radio break thru of the eclectic single “Cannonball”, “Last Splash” became their best selling album, but even before that they were inspiring Kurt Cobain and a whole generation of musicians. Listen to the whole thing and you’ll see why.

[50/50] Genre Movie #11: “Die Hard”

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Genre Movie #11: “Die Hard” (1988)

bruce-willis-as-john-mcclane-in-die-hardIs “Die Hard” the best action movie ever made? I’ll let critic Matt Zoller Seitz make the argument:

It restored a measure of human vulnerability to the high-tech shoot-’em-up… Audiences dug the flesh-and-blood struggles of NYPD cop John McClane (Willis), trudging on glass-slashed feet to save his wife from terrorists, just as they dug the middle-aged bickering of the main characters in another 1988 action film, “Midnight Run.”

“Midnight Run” is another great, funny action movie that’s held up extremely well, not the least of which because Tom McCleister, one of our Durham friends and neighbors, co-stars in it. But back to “Die Hard.”

Even when the film is cross-cutting between multiple lines of action in several locations, and killing people off by the bushel, you’re never confused about what’s happening, where you are, who you’re looking at, or what’s at stake. It is as respectfully classical an action film as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Aliens“—a rare Hollywood popcorn picture with a deep sense of film history, and one that can be endlessly re-watched, always revealing new things.

Zoller Seitz doesn’t just think its the best action movie, but one of the best movies ever.

The expanded cast of characters is so well-drawn and seems such a part of a community, however makeshift, that parts of “Die Hard” remind me of “Casablanca,” a film with no dead spots and no uninteresting characters, only wit, heart, action and suspense.

I could go on with the clips, or you could read the whole thing here: “Die Hard in a Building: An Action Classic Turns 25

[50/50] Book #11: “The Forever War”

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Book #11: “The Forever War” — Joe Haldeman (1974)

(I’m going to cheat a little here and just post my review of the novel from “What our writers are reading” in the 12/23/09 issue of Indy Week.)

the_forever_warWhen Joe Haldeman returned from the Vietnam War, having experienced combat first-hand, he felt compelled to offer a “reply” to Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers.

Set over thousands of years, The Forever War follows a soldier fighting against the first aliens encountered by humans. Due to the relativistic speeds of space travel, his unit returns from every battle to discover that centuries have passed on Earth, with their families and the generals who ordered them into combat long dead.

Haldeman struggled to find a publisher for his anti-war book, as it was deemed too controversial, too close for comfort in the early ’70s. The Forever War eventually went on to win the Hugo and the Nebula, science fiction’s highest awards, and is now considered a masterpiece of both sci-fi and anti-war novels such as Catch 22. (It should also not be confused with the book of the same title—recently issued in paperback—by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, which is about a different “forever war.”)

Earlier this year, Haldeman released his definitive version of the book, restoring a center section that was originally considered “too downbeat.” Interestingly, he left in several anachronisms (the book opens in 1997, and we are already colonizing other planets) because he realized it doesn’t matter when the story is set or whether the analogy is of Vietnam—or Iraq and Afghanistan. The effect of war on soldiers is still the same.

[50/50] Album #26: “Let It Be”

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[50/50] Album #26: “Let It Be” — The Replacements (1984)

Sorry, Kev, not the one from The Beatles.

letibeI think half the reason I like this record is because of its cover. While the AV Club goes into loving detail about Let It Be’s iconic cover and its (non) symbolism here, for me its because I lived in a place almost exactly like that. For six months in 1988, Paul Rogers and I lived in the top of a house in New Cumberland, with a fire escape running along the side, and a roof on which I once found myself waking up after one of the big parties Paul threw. The place was within crawling distance of half a dozen bars. Paul showed me how to play pool and play the ponies. We filled the uninsulated attic with army surplus parachutes and a table tennis table and played incredibly violent games of ping pong. We both thought we were going to be great writers. One day I was typing away on the tiny back porch, working on the manuscript for Truckin’ Turtles, when Paul came bounding up the stairs. “What’s up,” I asked. “My car caught fire,” he said as he ran inside. “Everything ok?” I inquired as he flew back out a few seconds later. “Yeah, we’re good.”

It was a great six months.

Of course, the other reason to love this record is because of the music. My editor at the Indy said she played “Let It Be” so much, she wore through two copies. Listen to it sometime and you’ll see why.